Cutting an imposing figure, Preetesh Balyaya, captain and offensive linesman of the Mumbai Gladiators, is every bit as uncompromising as his looks. Beyond the strapping frame though, is a very open, highly passionate and gregarious speaker as well, who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Preetesh was awarded the Sandy Grossman award for being the Best Offensive Linesman in the first season of the Elite Football League of India (ELFI), and he goes by the nickname of ‘Hellboy’, for he claims that that’s what he brings when he steps onto the football field.
I caught up with him on his time out to talk about his experiences, his award, his captaincy, and most importantly, his team.
Hi Preetesh, thanks for your time. Speaking to the EFLI players, each from their varied backgrounds is just an amazing experience. Tell us a little bit about your life before the EFLI and American football happened.
Before I took up American football, I was into my father’s business, helping him out. I was doing my judo and I was also into weightlifting and sumo wrestling.
That’s indeed a wide assortment of sporting endeavours that you were into earlier Preetesh and a strong sporting background. So was it the coach who first contacted you?
Yes, it was the coach of the Mumbai team who first contacted me and told me to show up for the trials, despite some issues that I was facing at the time. He just called me up and told me about upcoming selections for American football and asked me if I’d like to give it a try. I was initially not very inclined, but having been a sportsman all my life, I was always going to say ‘yes’, never being one to turn down any sporting opportunity.
So then I went for the selections, and it was a tough one. I had to go through more than four selections, and it wasn’t just me; everybody there went through some rigorous selections.
So that’s how we got there; I wasn’t good, at least that’s what my colleague said about me when I first came. But then here I am now, having received the award for Best Offensive Linesman in the first season of EFLI and the captain of the Mumbai Gladiators. So I guess I have proved myself.
You told me that you were into judo, sumo wrestling and weightlifting earlier. Now barring weightlifting, the other two can both be called combat sports. Was that combativeness and physicality something that drew you to American football as well?
Absolutely! It was just amazing! You had shoulder pads and lots of other gear and, you know, when you wear all of that and step onto the field, you are no longer a normal human being, you are transformed into a warrior. Probably you just need a sword in your hand.
I was into judo earlier, I loved judo; judo was my passion. But now, that has been totally changed. I think American football would come first in priority, and then everything else.
And coincidentally, the name of your team is also the Mumbai Gladiators, so kind of fits, don’t you think?
I am telling you that we were so lucky to get that name. Like I said earlier, all of us wearing those shoulder pads and other gear, we are warriors when we enter the field. And we don’t have swords, but we are the swords, as we clash with each other during the game. That’s the fun that is there in this game, that’s what American football is all about. It’s about passion, love and everything else, respect for everyone involved – the players, the coaches, the management. When you start playing this game, you start learning everything.
So, you said you went through four rounds of selections during the trials. Was it just the Indian coaches who were there or did you also have coaches from the US coming over?
The first round of selections we had the Indian coaches and then from the third round of selections onwards we had the US coaches who had come down. They were so amazing, they knew the game that was required from each of us. Even the Indian coaches were finding it difficult initially and struggling a bit since they were new to the game, but once the US coaches came in they were so dedicated to us, they made us feel and understand what American football is all about. So I really appreciate the work that they did and their role during the selections.
This game was new to you, with movies and perhaps television your only encounter with this game previously, especially since you weren’t from the rugby background either, like some of the other players. How was the experience initially playing this game?
I actually had never even watched NFL before. I had only seen this in movies – We Are Marshall, The Longest Yard – and so it was completely new to me. Then I slowly started going online and looking up NFL videos. I told my quarterback, his name is Viraj Khelekar, to download all the NFL games, college games that he could find and give them to me.
And when I used to come to my father’s office, even now I’m sitting in my cabin, what I used to do was go watch these videos of the game. That just makes my day, from morning to evening, just football.
Like you’ve mentioned earlier, the gear in American football has a special attraction to it. If you were to choose one, what would be your favourite piece of equipment?
See, being a linesman, the only thing that hurts us guys is that we never get the ball. (Chuckles)
And in football they say that the only people who become famous are the people who receive the ball, which is either the tight ends, the receivers, the quarterback or the running backs. And if the corner backs are lucky with the interceptions and stuff, they sometimes get the ball.
So what I thought was, why not I go play defensive linesman, so that even if I don’t get the ball, I can at least take care of the guy who has the ball, that’s how I can take out my aggression on him.
What happens with the defensive linesman is that once you go inside, you either sack the quarterback or ‘kill’ (term used to refer to stopping the play) him. So once the ball is loose from his hands, I can pick up the ball and go forward.
So talking about favourite, I don’t think there is any particular favourite that I have. Only thing that amuses us is the ball, because when we used to practice our American coaches used to tell us – “Guys, never drop the ball. Imagine that this ball is not a ball, but a million dollar contract that you’re holding in your hands.”
So, you know, whenever we see the ball, we see a million dollar contract. That’s the most favourite part of American football, the ball!
Preetesh, you’re the first linesman I’m talking to. Could you just explain a little about this position of yours in American football?
The best thing about this is that you need to be very much fit. I will tell you about both, offensive and defensive, alright.
As an offensive linesman, it is very important for you to be huge and the most important thing is you need to be very sharp. You need to use your brains, you need to make some plan, you need coordination, eye contact, everything. It is one of the most difficult things to do in American football, being an offensive linesman, because the only thing that is important for you is to save your quarterback.
And there are five players in the line, and each individual has his own responsibilities. Now, the best thing about this is that we are a group of five, but still, every guy has his own duties. Every guy has to protect his own layer so that the defense can’t get inside, because if the defense gets in they will sack the quarterback and the ball is lost. This is one of the best positions in the game.
Then comes defensive line. Just like the offensive one, the defensive line also has four people who will be standing in front of the offensive line of the opposition. Now, even here they have to be very sharp, they need to check whether the ball has been thrown, because if the ball is snapped and the offense gets in, then there is a penalty against the defensive team. So they need to be very sharp, very agile and very quick, almost like lightning speed.
Once the ball is snapped, there is a call, ‘Down, set, go’, and when the quarterback says ‘Go’, the offensive linesman throws the ball. The defensive line has to be so quick, you can’t even imagine how fast it happens. We then have to use our power to face off against the opponent’s offensive line, and it’s like two elephants fighting, like two bulls charging at each other. One bull is trying to protect and the other one is just looking to go past.
So, I think I’m so lucky that I have been selected for this position and now I’ve started playing D line, this is the best position I think in American football.